My four-year-old said the wrong thing again to me today. No, he didn’t swear or forget to say please or call me ‘Egyptian Mummy’ (which is his favourite nickname for me at the moment). He just said: ‘Can I use blue to colour this in?’ But what upset me was that he said it in English. Although I was the only other person in the room. And he knew all of the words above in Romanian.
Since the birth of my older son we have tried to be consistent: I speak Romanian to the children, my husband speaks Greek and, even when we are all having dinner together, there are three languages going on around the table at any time. (My husband and I speak English to each other and if the children share a story with both of us simultaneously, they will say it in English too). On the whole, the strategy has worked well, and the children speak all three languages reasonably fluently. Recently, however, they have taken to speaking English not only among themselves (which was to be expected), but also to us the parents.
I grew up in a trilingual environment myself, so I thought I had it sussed, but I find myself surprisingly unrelaxed about the whole thing. I don’t want the children or us to get lazy and revert back to English, because it will be so hard for them to communicate with their relatives and grandparents in Greece and Romania. I also want them to have the flexibility to live and work in these countries should they choose to do so at some point in the future. I want them to be able to engage with other cultures at a deeper level, as you can do when you speak other languages.
But at the same time, I fear I may be doing them a disservice. That, by insisting so much on speaking Romanian, I am actually putting them off using this language. That, by refusing to speak English except for the purposes of homework, I am putting my son at a disadvantage, not building his vocabulary, not conveying all the tricky nuances of the English language, and – saddest of all – not sharing with him my love of the English language.
Because, if I am honest, it is English that is the language of my heart, even if it is not officially my mother tongue. I live, dream and write in English; I clothe my thoughts and feelings in English words. I have taught English to hundreds of other children… but am not teaching it to mine. My head tells me it is the sensible choice. While they are living here in the UK, English will be their dominant language anyway, and I can always explain the mysteries of punctuation and grammar to them.
But my heart is always a little torn when they say something in English and I reply to them: ‘Speak to me in Romanian, please…’